Another kick in the teeth for Palestinian justice
When the ax finally fell on US aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, it was anything but a shock. It was entirely in line with the mysterious ways in which the current US administration works.
Its promise of a “Deal of the Century” to bring peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, for example, now looks more like a bargain basement of recycled ideas, ranging from economic reconstruction of Gaza to a confederation between Palestine and Jordan. Core issues such as East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, or what the future holds for the rights of Palestinian refugees, are addressed in a manner that mainly leaves scorched earth at the suggestion of even convening around a negotiating table. One wonders whether Washington’s proposals are the result of utter miscomprehension of the situation, or a deliberate attempt to sabotage whatever remains of the chance to reach a peace agreement based on the two-state solution.
First there was the unilateral recognition by the Trump administration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the move of the US embassy there, then last week came the announcement that US funding of UNWRA was to be entirely withdrawn. Unless other countries plug the gap and cover the shortfall, which amounts to about a quarter of UNWRA’s $1.2 billion budget, the services it provides to 5.4 million Palestinian refugees are under real and severe threat.
The US State Department accused the agency of being “irredeemably flawed.” What seems to me to be irredeemably flawed is the logic of the decision to cut these funds and still believe the US can play an honest broker in any future peace negotiations. If an American-brokered deal is around the corner, why can’t the role and funding of UNRWA be part of a future agreement?
The State Department’s words reflect the administration’s overly simplistic approach to the Palestinian refugee issue. Its argument that the US pays disproportionately more than any other country is numerically correct. However, foreign aid is a tool for influencing foreign policy, which in this case serves the interests of America’s ally Israel, as otherwise it would have to shoulder the responsibility for looking after at least some of the refugees in the West Bank and Gaza.
It also helps to prevent political unrest in other places hosting Palestinian refugees, such as Jordan and Lebanon. Twenty-five years after the great promise of the Oslo Accords, many Palestinian refugees languish under punitive occupation in the West Bank; they are blockaded in Gaza; their lives have been shattered in Syria; and they are generally mistreated in Lebanon. How on earth can cutting the funds of the only agency with an overall picture of their predicaments and needs, which employs 30,000 of them and has a wealth of experience and expertise, contribute to building trust with a community whose goodwill will be crucial in determining any future peace agreement?
There can be only one answer to this.
What seems to me to be irredeemably flawed is the logic of the decision to cut these funds and still believe the US can play an honest broker in any future peace negotiations.
The US administration, acting in concert with the Israeli prime minister and his government, is deliberately attempting to dismantle UNRWA as one step further toward burying whatever hopes might be left for the two-state solution. On the two most important and sensitive issues at the heart of this conflict, symbolically and practically the message from Washington to the Palestinian people is that even the most minimal of their demands will not be met: Jerusalem will not be the capital of their future independent state, and as far as the US is concerned the refugee issue is confined to the 50,000 original 1948 refugees still living, not the 5.4 million registered with UNRWA.
But if these millions of people who are descendants of the refugees are not also refugees, then what are they? What are their rights? What is their legal status? Not one or even a hundred American statements will change the fact that many still live in refugee camps and are stateless. Most of them do not want to exercise their right of return but they want and need closure, through compensation, acknowledgment of their suffering, physically and mentally, and by having a choice of where they live, while their human rights and dignity are respected. This is not much to ask.
According to Washington, the UNRWA is an “endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The growing number of Palestinians registered with the organization represents the natural growth of a population whose predicament has never been resolved.
The UNRWA was entrusted by the United Nations with ensuring the wellbeing of these people. This is its duty and, considering the hostile environments in which the agency has worked during its 70 years of existence, and the extremely restricted resources it has had to operate with, it deserves considerably more praise than criticism.
Throughout its existence, the UNWRA has been a stalwart in protecting these victims of many wars from malnutrition and homelessness, while doing its best to ensure their education and health and even giving many an opportunity to start small businesses. By doing all of this it has given so many of them hope, and in doing so prevented them from becoming easy prey for extremist views and religious fundamentalism.
This is quite an achievement for an organization operating in one of the world’s most intricate conflicts and grappling with some of the most complex issues. Why is it, then, that UNRWA is so viciously attacked? It is mainly because it is an easy target, being a UN organization whose leaders are obliged to exercise restraint in the face of many unsubstantiated allegations while continuing to do what they do best — looking after Palestinian refugees, a role which is now interfering with attempts by Israel and the US to undermine the two-state solution and deny the refugees their status, let alone any justice.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg